UK drive on gene editing would be ‘disaster’ for sustainable farming

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A full throated drive towards gene editing of the type heralded by the UK government yesterday could spell disaster for sustainable farming, leading organic groups have warned. 

They say that the Government’s response to this year’s public consultation on gene edited crops – just 10 weeks in length, and launched in a national lockdown – brazenly ignores public opinion on the issue, pointing out that 85% of responses were against deregulation. And they warn that deregulation of gene editing risks further intensifying corporate control of food. 

The Soil Association and Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G) both dispute a central claim being made by Defra and the government, that gene-editing is fundamentally different to genetic modification (GM) because it can only achieve changes that would occur over time in nature, making it simply a “short cut” of traditional plant breeding. Both groups insist that gene editing produces changes that are ‘novel’ and patentable and uses steps that do no occur in nature. There is no clear line, they say, between gene-editing and genetic modification. 

The fact that genetically edited crops can also be “heavily patented” means they “play heavily towards corporate, interests, rather than environmental benefits”, warns the Soil Association, “removing yet more independence and control for farmers over the unique challenges they face on their own farms”. 

Unlocking the unproven power of gene editing 
Both groups warn that the multiple benefits claimed for gene edited crops – climate change resilient, more drought tolerant, more nutritious – remain theoretical. Rather than “unlocking the power” of gene editing, as a Defra press release confidently announced yesterday, OF&G says the Government’s plan to deregulate gene edited crops, “unlocks an unproven power”. 

Roger Kerr, OF&G

OF&G chief executive, Roger Kerr, commented: “It has been long anticipated that the deregulation of GE was a ‘done deal’ but coming at a time when agricultural policy is going through such upheaval, there is little or no evidence that the much vaunted GE ‘sticking plaster’ will effectively tackle the current social and environmental emergencies we are told that it will.”

70 years of subverting nature
The Soil Association warns that even genetically engineered traits that might seem desirable can be a “distraction”. It says: “For example, changing the DNA of crops and animals to make them immune to disease is not a long-term solution. The fix is temporary as diseases invariably overcome the resistant genes. We should be investing in solutions that tackle the underlying problems in our food system, such as the reasons behind disease and pests in the first place.”

Both groups say that investing in organic and other agro-ecological farming approaches makes much better sense. “If the Government genuinely seeks to ‘protect the natural environment’ as they have indicated, then there are proven, regulated, whole food system methodologies, such as organic, that deserve far greater recognition and support through funding for additional research,” says Kerr. 

“We have had 70 years of agricultural technological innovation which has attempted to manipulate and subvert nature and we are now facing the harsh realities of this approach. GE is no different”

Roger Kerr, OF&G

Kerr adds:“We have had 70 years of agricultural technological innovation which has attempted to manipulate and subvert nature and we are now facing the harsh realities of this approach. GE is no different. Industrial, intensive agriculture is killing our ecosystems and the de-regulation of GE will not address this”.

Clear labelling demand
If the UK government insists on pushing ahead with the deregulation of gene edited crops it should operate a clear labelling system. The Soil Association says: “At a minimum, UK shoppers should be reassured that other products will not be cross-contaminated by gene-editing trials or foods. That includes the organic market. The government urgently needs to commit to this – and provide vital information on how cross-contamination of gene-edited and non-gene-edited products will be avoided so people can be confident in what they are buying.”

Photo by Marcin Jozwiak on Unsplash

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